My atlas comes alive in D.C.

Posted June 25, 2009, at 7:34 p.m.

I held the address for the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the SAIS, of Johns Hopkins University in my hand as I stepped off the Metro at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., ready for my first day of class. A quick survey of the street signs led me down a broad avenue lined with impressive buildings. I looked around me with a start, stopped, rechecked my address, and then made sure that I was truly in the right place.

My new classes were being held right on Embassy Row.

The avenue before me was lined with embassies, home to foreign dignitaries from all over the world. A shady stretch of street at the center of our nation’s capital, this is where the majority of the ambassadorial presence in the United States lives and resides. Embassy Row is the site of 174 foreign embassies. I slowed my foot-steps, almost forgetting to look for my classroom building as I read the formal plaques on the sides of the mansions around me: Embassy of Uzbekistan, the Chilean Embassy, Embassy of Peru. Across the street, an opulent, historic mansion on the corner flew the flag of Indonesia.

Not for the first time, I felt a little like Dorothy in Oz — or, in this case, like a contestant on “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” I was standing in the heart of the capital’s diplomatic community.

As a rule, embassies are located in capital cities, while other diplomatic facilities — consulates, trade missions, etc.— are found throughout a country. Each country’s embassy is often composed of a collection of several facilities: an embassy “residence” is the ambassador’s official home, and the “chancery” is where diplomats’ offices are located. Other facilities might include a separate office for military attaches, or for consular operations. As I continued to walk down Embassy Row, I passed many historic and striking buildings, embassies that have clearly stood for a century or more. Others appear to be newer buildings — perhaps representing newer countries.

Growing up, I dreamed of traveling to far-off places. I read National Geographic in the travel guide section of Borders bookstore on snow days in Bangor, Maine. I pored over the pages of my atlas and read about explorers and travelers such as Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and Margaret Mead. Today, I keep a large world map on my wall, adorned with pushpins: a red pin for every country I have visited, and four green pins, carefully moved around, marking the places where I would most like to go someday.

The 174 embassies here in Washington are legally considered to be territory of the country they represent. Ambassadors, unlike typical visitors to our country, enjoy diplomatic immunity, and the embassies around me are treated as pieces of the sending countries. If only symbolically, walking down Embassy Row feels a bit like finding myself on a three-dimensional version of that map on my wall.

Early for that first day of class, I decided to explore my multinational surroundings. Right next door to my classroom is the Chilean Embassy — and it just happened to be holding a photography exhibit in its front room. I checked in through the guards, signed a registry, and spent 15 minutes admiring photographs. “Imagine,” I wrote to a friend that evening, “stopping by a photography exhibition inside the Chilean Embassy on my way to class!”

Outside of the SAIS library is a small courtyard with trees, benches — and a large piece of the Berlin Wall, dedicated to the school as a symbol of the peaceful end of a long international struggle.

My classmates are as multinational as the buildings on the street outside. I sit between a woman from the Honduran Embassy and a Polish journalist; across from us sit an Irishman who has fought in the British army, an Indian economist, and a young woman who works for the World Bank.

Walking down Embassy Row on my way to and from class, I have a sense of being neither in the U.S., nor wholly in another country. Instead, it is as though I am in the odd, in-between realm of foreign territoriality: the world of the diplomatic community. As I stand at the edge of the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, I listen to the languages being spoken around me: French, Japanese, and two or three that I cannot recognize. The flags of different countries flap in the breeze up and down the street. I think of the many hours I have spent daydreaming over atlases and travelogues. Now, I am standing on a street that is a kind of symbolic, three-dimensional atlas. To my 16-year-old self, I say this: You have arrived.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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